On December 5, at the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Federal and State Policy Summit in Washington DC, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) presented his perspective on the potential for the renewable energy community to expand its markets through climate, infrastructure, and tax credit legislation; the political obstacles; and how to overcome them.
“There are easily a dozen Republican senators who would like to do something on climate change,” he asserted, “but they’re not stupid.”
“[The late Senator John McCain] once said to me, ‘Sheldon, you know I’m willing to undertake dangerous missions. But I don’t like suicide missions.’”
“If we can move acting on climate for Republican senators from being a suicide mission to being just a dangerous mission, we can get some real progress going.”
Progress takes perseverance in the face of major setbacks inflicted by powerful opponents.
“From 2007-2009, there were bipartisan bills, hearings, conversations [on climate action]. It all came to a dead stop in January 2010. That’s the date the five Republican judges on the US Supreme Court delivered the Citizens United decision, [which] told big special interests that they could spend unlimited amounts of money in elections. [The fossil fuel industry] immediately went to work and they shut down all bipartisanship on climate.”
“Corporate America needs to show up on climate action,” Whitehouse stated. If it does, “a very significant carbon price can happen. We’re already starting to see bipartisan carbon pricing beginning to appear even in the House, even under Republican control.”
To encourage this, “I think probably the best thing is to ensure that in states where you have significant employment and investment, [it’s] making itself very clear to elected officials and [communicating] that you take [legislators’] lack of support for climate activity very seriously.”
Sen. Whitehouse anticipated of the incoming Congress, “An infrastructure bill is a highly likely, relatively early opening piece of legislation. It would be very much worth your while to organize for the House what particular infrastructure you would be most interested in.”
“I would urge that you view yourself as part of a renewables community and lobby just as energetically for electric vehicle charging stations and offshore wind and whatever else helps around you in this universe and not just [focus] myopically on [a single industry]…. Then I think you’ll be much stronger and more effective and divide and conquer won’t work. Get your plans together and coordinate them with the other groups. Grow the pie. There’s lots of room for growth, too—this is not hypothetical.”
Returning to the bigger picture, he emphasized, “I do think that we need to keep a constant focus on working on a price on carbon. We can continue to try to build a renewables patchwork of [tax credits] but those are still small bastions against the tide of economic favoritism that the fossil fuel industry enjoys and very [fiercely] protects.”
“The window for taking action before very unpleasant consequences come to us is closing pretty rapidly.”
Addressing the false “polar bears vs. jobs” narrative, Sen. Whitehouse emphasized the importance of exposing the “climate denial apparatus”, including “how it’s paid for and how these are false front organizations…. We just haven’t done a good job of highlighting the nature of our adversary. That, I think, helps change public opinion a lot.”
On lobbying, “The best way that I think anybody has lobbied is in their home states. Shouldn’t be hearing just from CEOs, definitely shouldn’t just be hearing from paid lobbyists—it’s really important to bring real people from the district and state to make their case.”
“Statistics are great but…we’re human beings and storytelling is a long human tradition that gets to the heart of people. You need to come in and tell a human story.”
On mitigating the impact of the trade war with China, Sen. Whitehouse empathized that although the tariff waiver system established under the Department of Commerce is lacking in transparency and structurally favors larger corporate entities, “You do need to try to take advantage of the waivers where you can.”
On negotiation tactics he quipped, “I will say you guys did a pretty nice job in the last round of the tax credit] negotiations. We were arguing for a 10-year extension and the wind guys rather publicly said, ‘We’ll take five!’ So…they got five! I think you guys got seven because you did not take a public position against the advocacy of your friends. So well done there.”
Lastly, “Ask! And if you get what you ask for, thank! People are surprisingly human about wanting to be thanked.”
Climate Action: A National Security Imperative
To policymakers and business executives who have chosen to disregard the bigger picture in pursuit of their own short-term private interests, Sen. Whitehouse offered this admonition:
“The example we are setting right now of ignoring unanimous science on a global crisis because our vaunted American democracy is so bedeviled by the fossil fuel industry that it won’t take any reasonable action isn’t just an environmental or political problem…. The Chinese, and the Russians, and the jihadis, and the kleptocrats, all have [their own] theories of governance. And we fight those theories day by day and place by place around the globe…. When we don’t live by [our] principles, we give very important talking points to those adversary theories and we create enormous resentment among large numbers of people who actually get hurt [by our decisions]…. A lot of human beings will suffer and it is our nature as human beings to seek justice when we suffer.”
When Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement on June 1, 2017, he justified his decision in part by asserting that it would cost a heavily indebted US too much to implement it. He disregarded what the destabilization of our planet’s climate will cost Americans (and our fellow humans around the world) in terms of increased spending on natural disaster recovery, national security, and ultimately our basic physical and psychological well-being. He is a truly tragic character, fixated on “winning” by allying himself with the most powerful and cunning without stopping to think what he is actually winning and at what cost to the world or even his own legacy.
The challenge of the renewable energy community is to maintain that balance between making pragmatic short-term decisions in pursuit of its various commercial interests while not losing focus of the higher mission or underestimating the power of its collective moral authority. It should view this as a source of strength to its grassroots organizers and political champions at the federal, state, and district levels rather than an abstraction irrelevant to its competitive positioning in an adversarial market.
What is ultimately so inspiring about this industry is not that it is providing jobs or cleaner, cheaper electricity but that it is vital to building a better, more sustainable future for our human civilization. That is an asset it should not underestimate.